Dispensationalism is a theological system that teaches biblical history is best understood in light of a number of successive administrations of God's dealings with mankind, which it calls "dispensations." It maintains fundamental distinctions between God's plans for national Israel and for the New Testament Church, and emphasizes prophecy of the end-times and a pre-tribulation rapture of the church prior to Christ's Second Coming. Its beginnings are usually associated with the Plymouth Brethren movement in the UK and the teachings of John Nelson Darby.
The Plymouth Brethren movement, basically a reaction against the established church in England and its ecclesiology, became known for its anti-denominational, anti-clerical, and anti-credal stance. While theologically orthodox, the Plymouth Brethren (Darby in particular) developed unique ideas regarding the interpretation of Scripture while emphasizing prophecy and the second coming of Christ. The theology of this movement became known as "Dispensationalism."
This new teaching spread in America through prophecy conferences such as the Niagara Bible Conferences (1883-1897). James H. Brookes (1830-1898), a pastor in St. Louis and prominent figure in the Niagara Conferences, disseminated dispensationalist ideas through his ministry and publications. Most importantly, Dwight L. Moody was sympathetic to the broad outlines of dispensationalism and had as his closest lieutenants dispensationalist leaders such as Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), James M. Gray (1851-1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), William J. Eerdman (1833-1923), A. C. Dixon (1854-1925), and A. J. Gordon (1836-1895). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1907), and the Philadelphia College of the Bible (1914). The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.
Each one of these dispensations is said to represent a different way in which God deals with man, specifically a different testing for man. "These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God's method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man's responsibility," explained C. I. Scofield. "Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment - marking his utter failure in every dispensation."
The idea of different "dispensations" may be found in the writings of some of the early church fathers, and viewing the flow of biblical history as a series of "dispensations" may be seen in some works that pre-date Darby's dispensationalism, such as L'OEconomie Divine by Pierre Poiret (1646-1719). But these earlier works did not include the unique testing/failure motif described by Scofield or any hint of the underlying tenets of Darby's dispensationalism.
Beliefs about the Church and Israel
In addition to these dispensations, the real theological significance can be seen in four basic tenets which underlie classic dispensational teaching. Dispensationalism maintains:
These tenets are supposedly derived from the dispensationalists' insistence on "consistent literalism" in their hermeneutic, especially in the literal interpretation of OT prophecies regarding Israel.^^ Crucial to the dispensationalist reading of biblical prophecy, drawn principally from Daniel and Revelation, but also, to some degree, from Ezekiel, is the assertion that the Jewish Temple will be rebuilt on the Temple Mount as a precursor to the Lord returning to restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel centered on Jerusalem. The dispensational movement was therefore fueled by the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It has grown in popularity particularly since 1967, coinciding with the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, and a few years later in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's blockbuster book The Late Great Planet Earth.
Dispensationalism teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will be a physical event, by which a world-wide kingdom will be established in human history, geographically centered in Jerusalem. Dispensationalists teach that the Second Coming will be a two step process. In the first step, Christ returns to resurrect the blessed dead and rapture the living believers from the Earth. After this, a seven year period of tribulation occurs, climaxing in the Battle of Armageddon. In the second step, Christ intervenes at the Battle of Armageddon and establishes a literal 1000-year millennial kingdom on earth. As such, some Dispensationalists are often associated with the circulation of end times prophecy, which professes to read omens of the Second Coming in current events; however, other Dispensationalists have criticized this apocalypticism popularized by authors such as Hal Lindsey.
Premillennialism and dispensationalism
By way of clarification, it should be noted that while all dispensationalists are by definition premillennial in their eschatology, not all premillennialists are dispensational in their theology. Historic Premillennialism (e.g. in George Eldon Ladd) rejects pre-tribulationalism, dispensationalism's radical tenets, and its uniquely Jewish view of the 1000 year millennium. Historic premillennialism may be traced back to some of the early church fathers where it was sometimes termed "chiliasm."
See main article Premillennialism.
Dispensational theology in Christianity at large
Prior to dispensationalism, Covenant theology was the prominent Protestant view regarding redemptive history and is still the view of the Reformed churches. A relatively recent view, which is seen as a third alternative, especially among Calvinistic Baptists, is called New Covenant Theology. Outside of Protestantism, however, other Christian branches (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism) have not embraced any form of dispensationalism.
"Progressive Dispensationalism" by Blaising and Bock (Baker Books, 1993) introduced a movement showing that progressives within the dispensationalist camp have resolved many of the issues upon which classic Dispensational theology has been attacked -- especially by Reformed theology. However, some have questioned whether these progressives, having abandoned certain crucial tenets, can fairly continue to call themselves dispensationalists at all.^^
See main article Progressive dispensationalism.
Acts 28 and Mid-Acts dispensationalism
Other varieties of dispensationalism include the "Acts-28 Dispensationalism" of E. W. Bullinger (1837-1913) and the Acts-13, or Mid-Acts, Dispensationalists, represented by J. C. O'Hair, C. R. Stam (Things That Differ), and Charles F. Baker (A Dispensational Theology). The latter group also refers to itself as "The Grace Movement." These varieties are discussed in the main article on Hyper-dispensationalism.